THE SUBSTANCE OF FIRE: And Other Plays by Jon Robin Baitz (Theatre Communications Group, 355 Lexington Ave., NY, NY 10017: $24.95; 172 pp.). When American playwright Jon Robin Baitz is following the precept--"Write what you know"--his work rings with the electricity and elegance of London's best dramas. A case in point is "The Film Society," a drama about the rise to power of an Afrikaner schoolteacher in 1970 South Africa and the most accomplished of the three works collected here. While the play's setting begs for predictable anti-apartheid polemicizing, Baitz--remembering that as a boy growing up in South Africa he did not always treat his parents' black servants with the utmost of respect--delves deeper by portraying the schoolteacher as happy-go-lucky. Reality, however, constantly presses itself upon the schoolteacher in ironic ways: When he orders the escapist film "Touch of Mink" for his film society, for example, the distributor mistakenly sends him "Touch of Evil."
Hailed, after the success of "The Film Society," as the wunderkind who would breathe life and loot into America's struggling theaters, Baitz at times strayed from his discipline of writing from the heart; by his own admission he would "shuck and jive and hustle" to please others. Some of these lapses are evident in another play collected here, "The Substance of Fire." Baitz has told interviewers that Isaac, this play's protagonist--a publisher of intensely serious books like "Hazlitt on Cannibalism"--personifies the courage and idealism lacking in a frivolous American culture. But in idealizing Isaac and demonizing institutions like chain bookstores ("It's like, 'Buy a Coke, getta Book") in order to make the requisite Grand Social Statement, Baitz loses some of the psychological depth of "The Film Society." At times, though, Baitz lets Isaac's anger burn so fiercely that we can see interesting glimmers of the fear behind his and Isaac's fire. When his son takes over the publishing house, for example, Isaac snaps: "You understand, Aaron, sweetheart, you will just be part of the big pile, the big carcinogenic pile of trash, building up all around you, while life itself no longer seems real."